It is hoped that plans for a new £150 million network of greenways covering 1,000km across Northern Ireland will address some of the barriers to people cycling. Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard announced this week that he is making £160,000 available to councils wanting to draft up detailed proposals in their areas. It is the first significant step towards what could be an exciting long-term project for Northern Ireland, benefitting cyclists, runners and walkers.
The greenways would see the development of abandoned railway lines, canal towpaths and flood embankments, and would include a cross-border element. Ten of the 11 councils have been approved for grant funding between £8,000 and £32,000 to run feasibility studies on their plans. Mr Hazzard said the plans will look to deliver a 400km primary and 600km secondary greenways network which will connecting towns and cities to villages and the countryside.
One of the men who has been campaigning for this investment is Jonathan Hobbs from NI Greenways. Jonathan's website www.nigreenways.com has long championed the idea of transforming Northern Ireland's disused railway network into a world-class walking and cycling infrastructure to sell to the world. It has been a thought-provoking campaign that received a significant boost this week, and Jonathan hopes Minister Hazzard's initial investment is the start of bigger things to come.
"It's wonderfully exciting news for everyone in the country that we could see a 1,000km network of pathways crossing the countryside, and linking our villages, towns, cities and tourist attractions," Jonathan said.
"I was big into trains as a kid and knew a little about the history of the railways in Ireland. Strangely it was a trip to Cork in 1990 which probably began the spark of the NI Greenways idea.
"The old railway bridge crossing the estuary at Ballydehob fascinated me, and I bought a book on Irish railway history.
"Later, when the Comber Greenway was built on the old railway line, I assumed this was the start of a wider project, but I couldn't find anything proposing this on a bigger scale. With the advent of Google Maps I was able to trace the lines using satellite photography and assess what was still remaining. From there, it was just about raising awareness of the old railways and the potential for breathing life into forgotten routes."
Jonathan believes four years of campaigning - including writing about the project on his website - has been a worthwhile investment. And he believes the initial funding injection from the Northern Ireland Executive could eventually lead to bigger gains for the economy.
"It's been four very short years campaigning on this, and a lot of spare time taken up writing about the project, but we're in a great place now," he added.
"That's what we need to focus on - leveraging a relatively small investment into world-class network of traffic-free routes which can do the same thing for some quiet rural areas - supporting employment, entrepreneurs, cafes and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, bike hire businesses and any number of our great leisure pursuits." - Jonathan Hobbs
"The best parts have been getting out to explore the remnants of the railways, seeing live greenway projects like the Great Western Greenway in Mayo making a real impact on the local area. That's an interesting example where a €6m investment is returning €11m into the local economy each year through the tens of thousands of visitors who flock to the greenway each year."
While there has been a frisson of excitement following Wednesday's announcement, Jonathan admits the Northern Ireland greenways project will be a long-term plan. About half of the 1,000km network is planned to be in place by 2026, so I think it'll be at least 2-3 years for whichever is the first project to be realised," he said. "But what's really important is central government setting the vision, tone and standards, and turning it over to local councils and communities to drive the projects forward - people on the ground who know the area, know the issues, know the folk who own the land and can work to build each project."
And Jonathan believes a network of traffic-free zones would encourage more people to get active outdoors.
"Safety and sharing the road with vehicles is one of the major barriers to people cycling, and greenways allow long-distance journeys away from the noise and danger of roads," he added. "It's vitally important for our towns and cities that we give people the realistic option to change from the car for certain journeys, and safe infrastructure is vital for cycling. Hopefully a world-class greenway network will play its part in ensuring that we don't leave increasing numbers of those cycling on greenways with nowhere to go once they hit our urban areas. It's something the Department for Infrastructure, the Cycling Unit and the Minister are working on alongside the Greenway Strategy and I know there'll be more welcome news on that front in the near future.”